Sister Joanna

Yesterday, it was my privilege to join with the choirs of Holy Family to sing at the funeral mass for Sister Joanna. Sister Joanna had been most recently serving as director of social work and spiritual life at Mercy House, where my mother was in residence for five months before hospice discharged her. That was how I had met Sister Joanna, who often brought communion to my mother and coordinated such comfort measures as haircuts and massage therapy.

Sister Joanna’s death came as a shock. Although she had her share of health problems, she was only 69 and still very active between her work at Mercy House and caring for her own mother. Her loss will be keenly felt by all the volunteers and staff of Mercy House, as well as all the families and the staff of hospice.

The church was full for the funeral yesterday and included a whole row of priests who gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. It was a beautiful service, but it is only the beginning of the good-byes to Sister Joanna. She was a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and a vigil service and burial mass will be held in Reading, Pennsylvania, next week.

Rest in peace, Sister Joanna.


father, farmer, and builder

This week, my daughters and I sang in the choir for the funeral of our friend Nancy’s dad. Nancy is a long-time church musician and liturgist, so many current and former choir members and friends arrived to support her by participating in the liturgy. We had 43 singers and 3 instrumentalists. The music was a beautiful and meaningful part of our prayers for Joe and being surrounded by so many musician-friends helped Nancy to play the funeral mass.

I know from personal experience how difficult it is to play for a loved one’s funeral or memorial. Because you have to concentrate on doing your job musically, some of the mourning that one would typically do at a funeral is deferred. My hope is that the memory of the music we shared will be a comfort to Nancy when she reflects on the funeral in the coming days.

The reflections offered centered around Joe’s roles in the community as a father of five children, a farmer in his younger years, and then a long-time builder of homes in our area. Each of these roles has many scriptural and faith references which were woven throughout the liturgy.

It was my privilege to write the universal prayer for the funeral. I served on the liturgy committee with Nancy for many years in our former parish and learned so much from her; I was honored that she asked me to write the petitionary prayer that closes the liturgy of the word.

Nancy and I have been supporting each other through an extended period of multi-generational family caretaking. Strangely, some of our most stressful periods have coincided. Fifteen years ago, I was staying at the hospital with one of my daughters when Joe had a serious stroke following heart surgery. I missed Nancy’s mom’s funeral when my mom had a heart attack while my dad was in the hospital for surgery. Now, Joe’s final illness and death happened while my mom is in a hospice residence.

I am truly thankful for Nancy’s support, friendship, and gracious example. I pray for solace and peace for Nancy and her family. Rest in peace, Joe.

flowers from Joe's funeral luncheon
Joe’s favorite color was blue, so there were blue hydrangeas and white roses on the tables at the funeral luncheon.



organist update

I posted here about a disconcerting incident at the church in Northampton when the organist fell ill at the console during mass on the first weekend in March.

As luck would have it, I was again in Northampton three weeks later for Palm Sunday. There was a gentleman filling in at the piano and organ, so I knew that the regular organist, a woman named Jeanne, was not there.

After mass, I asked two parishioners who were handing out church bulletins for an update. They told me that Jeanne had been ill with bronchitis and on medications, but arrived at church to play anyway – without eating breakfast, as she planned to receive communion. The combination was too much, resulting in the collapse which we witnessed.

The doctors ordered rest for four weeks before returning to work, so I hope that Jeanne was back in the loft for Easter Sunday, leading the congregation from the organ, and feeling well again.

(I am continuing in to be in catch-up mode on posts. With luck, there will be a post about why I was in Northampton again coming soon. Also, the navigation and layout problems with my blog are persisting, with a month’s worth of posts not loading on the main Posts page. The posts are accessible by using the prior or next post links at the bottom of each individual post.)

on the way out of town

This is the final post about my long weekend in Northampton, Massachusetts to sing Brahms at Smith College.

I was up early for breakfast with CK as my plan was to attend 8:00 mass on my way home. As in many other places, the Northampton-area Catholic churches have consolidated, so I was not very familiar with the church building itself.

As a former organist and church musician, I always pay particular attention to preludes and all the music. The organ was in a loft, so I couldn’t see the musicians. I noticed that there were mistakes in the prelude, but that isn’t uncommon, especially at early masses at Catholic churches, which sometimes fall to student organists or people who are trained as pianists rather than organists.

The cantor/songleader was also in the loft and announced the opening hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” – a very familiar hymn that is usually one of the first an organist learns. The introduction started as one expects but became increasingly atonal, ending in a cluster chord that was held for much longer than expected.

The voice of the cantor came over the microphone, asking for a doctor to come to the loft. A woman in the section of pews in front of me jumped over the back of a pew to reach the aisle more quickly and rushed to aid the organist.

The chord on the manuals stopped, although a bass note from the pedals remained. We could hear the parishioners who had gone to the loft asking questions, trying to get a response.

I’m sure I was not the only person in the congregation who immediately began praying.

After a couple of minutes, the priest came to the front of the church and led a “Hail Mary” for the organist. He told us an ambulance was on the way and that we would begin mass shortly. He said that she would be okay, although I am not sure how he could have known.

The organist’s name is Jeanne.

At some point, the long-held pedal note stopped, a bell rang from the front of the church, and we began mass.

You could hear the ambulance squad arrive and enter the loft. Jeanne must have still been on the organ bench because there was a pedal glissando as they lifted her off.

Between readings, an usher came to the front of the church and spoke to the priest, who excused himself and went back to her before she left for the hospital.

We continued the mass with no music. It turned out that it was the last weekend for the relatively-young-as-Catholic-priests-go pastoral associate who was being re-assigned to Pittsfield.

We did sing a verse of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” as he processed out to greet his parishioners for the last time.

It’s been two weeks now since that day. I read the bulletins and the church’s website for some mention of Jeanne, but there was none. I hope that the priest was correct – that she really was okay.


Corpus Christi in Honolulu

Flowers and cross

Aloha! Today, Catholic churches celebrate the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, still often called by its Latin name Corpus Christi. This celebration is close to my heart because for the many years that I belonged to Blessed Sacrament parish, we celebrated it as our parish name day. Even though that is no longer my parish, I still feel a special connection to the day.

This year was special because I got to attend mass at St. Patrick Church in Honolulu, where my daughter E and her husband were married and where they serve in the music ministry. My son-in-law is away doing research for his doctoral dissertation, but I attended the 8:30 mass at which their choir sings. The assigned cantor wasn’t able to make it, so E stepped in to do it, which was a lovely bonus for me.

One of the things that drew my attention today was the crucifix, which is carved wood. I was thinking about how appropriate that the corpus on the cross is brown, because Jesus’s skin would have been brown. So often, Jesus is depicted with light skin, which a Jewish man living in the sun-drenched Mediterranean would not have had. I also noticed, as always, the colorful floral arrangement. One of the brothers at the monastery arranges the flowers from their garden every week.

Father C, who presided at E and L’s wedding, presided and preached today. I love how he can say so much with so few words. He used the image of an open hand receiving the host at communion to explain how we should be open to God’s love.

Father C has a tremor disorder, which causes his hands, especially his right hand, to shake markedly when they are outstretched. Yet, when he was praying the Eucharistic prayer and raising the host and the cup, he was able to still his hands.

I appreciated the opportunity to be there to celebrate this special day, with Beth leading us in song. I especially enjoyed singing “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,” a favorite hymn which I have not had the occasion to sing for several years.  The third stanza of the poem by Percy Dreamer begins:

All our meals and all our living
make as sacraments of you,
that by caring, helping, giving,
we may be disciples true.


SoCS: contrasts

I attended vigil Mass this afternoon at a church in the town across the river. Everything seemed to be arranged to afford the most contrast. The pews finished in a blond or clear stain over a cream floor contrasted with a dark-stained wood ceiling with multicolored stenciling. The white marble, ornately carved altarpiece surrounding the tabernacle and the white walls contrasted with the deep blues and reds of the stained glass windows.

The silence after the end of the prelude contrasted with the loud organ and miked songleader and the congregation singing the opening hymn. (I’ll spare you the treatise on the techniques of leading congregational singing as an organist and the  – let’s call it – discrepancies from the ideal that I experienced.) Even the contrast of the ancient instrument playing music written within my lifetime that was composed to be played by guitars and other instruments.

The biggest aural contrast was between the voice of the pastor who was presiding at the liturgy and the answering voice of the congregation.  The priest is from Nigeria and speaks with a very distinct accent. I think that his first language was a tribal one and that he later learned English in school. The answering voices were speaking in American-accented English. Although the parish was founded by Polish immigrants – the inscriptions on the Stations of the Cross and the stained glass windows are all in Polish – the current congregation is largely generations removed from “the old country.” A recent parish merger brought in descendants of immigrants from other Eastern European countries and the entire congregation today was European-American. I find that listening to Father Charles praying and preaching makes me focus in a new way, exactly because I need to be extra-attentive because of his unfamiliar pronunciations and cadence.

There was one other thing that being at Mass today brought to me, not as a contrast, but as a gift. The Stations of the Cross, which are often paintings or bas relief, in this church are actually wall-mounted sculptures. From my seat in the pew along the wall, the sculpture of one of the men helping Jesus from the first fall was looking directly at me. It was comforting to see an expression of concern and compassion watching over me as I prayed with the rest of the assembly. An extra gift and grace for today.

This post is part of Linda’s Stream of Consciousness Saturdays. The prompt this week was most/least. Come join us! Find out how here:
socs-badgeBadge by: Doobster @ Mindful Digressions

And might as well add Linda’s Just Jot It January link: You can join that, too!


Sunday New Normal

For the second week in a row, I met my parents at church for 8:30 Mass. It’s great to have them back out and about after working through all the health stuff of the summer.  I’m hoping that I will be able to meet them for church most weeks through the fall, until the cold and snow make it too difficult for them to get out that early in the morning.

Today was the first time this season that Genesis Choir sang. This was the choir with which my daughter sang during her last two years at home.  Last June, I wrote about the impending end of her singing and ringing handbells at church near home; today was the first time I heard the choir without her in the front row.

The sound is different. The vast majority of the choir is 30+ years older than my daughter and her younger voice helped to smooth out some of the vibrato of the older soprano voices.  Besides her voice, I know they miss her energy, caring, and helpfulness.

For prelude, the choir sang “Servant Song” by Richard Gillard. This hymn is inextricably tied in my mind to the last weekend my daughters and I particiated in liturgies at the parish we lost in 2005.  That June Saturday, we provided music for the diocesan ordination at the cathedral in Syracuse. My older daughter cantored, my younger daughter rang handbells, and I helped with the conducting duties.  On Sunday, the choirs combined to sing for the first Mass of one of the newly ordained priests, who was from our parish.  “Servant Song” was one of the requested pieces that weekend and holds a lot of personal meaning for me.

The circumstances that led to our leaving our parish home were very painful, so difficult that it still hurts nine years later. For the first several years in our new parish, I would cry every time I heard “Servant Song.”  I couldn’t sing it at all. Eventually, I got to the point where I could make it through singing it part way, although the line, “I will weep when you are weeping” would always make me choke up.  In the last couple of years, I’ve actually been able to get through the whole hymn dry-eyed.

This morning, with an empty seat in the front row of sopranos where my daughter used to sit, I admit that I did brush away a few tears.